IN the hours since Gareth Bale routed Inter Milan right-back Maicon for the second time in a fortnight, Phil Neville has become a worldwide trending topic on Twitter.
Believe it or not, there is a link between the form of Tottenham’s young wonder (now 6/1 with William Hill for the PFA Player of the Year award) and the surge in Neville-related internet traffic.
For those of you who have no idea what the hell being a worldwide trending topic on Twitter means, let me explain. It’s the closest internet equivalent to what having a No. 1 hit single used to be before Simon Cowell turned the pop charts into his personal plaything. Trending on Twitter is a big deal, if you’re into Twitter. (Not sure if Phil Neville is or not.)
Everton’s all-action defender has become one of the most popular topics in the world for Twitter users since Bale helped Tottenham to beat Inter in the Champions League last night.
Almost all of the tweets depict him as some kind of Superman. Here’s a random selection:
“An eclipse is just the sun trying to hide from Phil Neville.”
“Phil Neville can slam a revolving door.”
“Phil Neville is the 0.1 per cent bacteria that Dettol cannot kill.”
The reason for all these Neville tweets (apart from the fact that there are a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands this Wednesday)? Neville, who has a relatively unglamorous image for a Premier League footballer, recently succeeded where Maicon, supposedly the world’s best right-back, failed. He kept Bale quiet.
Three days after Bale’s stunning Champions League hat-trick in a 4-3 San Siro defeat against Inter a fortnight ago, Tottenham hosted Everton. The Bale hype had been in overdrive. Italy’s press had touted him as a future Inter player. There were suggestions that Barcelona and Real Madrid were interested too. Given another few days, someone might have suggested a statue in his honour, or perhaps the naming of a cheese after him.
Brilliant as the 21-year-old is – quick, athletic, skilful – it was all starting to get a bit silly.
Neville, 12 years Bale’s senior, managed to keep him under control with what Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen later called “a defensive masterclass”. It provided the blueprint for any team looking to stop the Tottenham wing-back, who has operated as a left-winger this season.
The Everton right-back knew he couldn’t hope to match Bale for pace. Instead, he got the younger Seamus Coleman, playing on the right side of midfield, to double up with him and deny the Welshman space.
In addition, Neville used his positional nous to force Bale on to his weaker right foot as often as possible.
Interviewed by the Daily Post shortly after the game, Neville revealed his tactical secrets.
“Gareth’s probably the most in-form left winger in the world at the moment, certainly the most talked about, and I was so lucky that I had Seamus Coleman in front of me,” said Neville.
“I was pleased with the way it went – you had to make sure Seamus and the midfielders were in the right positions and then just use your experience.
“At times I had to be aggressive with Bale and at times drop off. I couldn’t give him space to open his legs, because once he does that then no full-back in the world is going to catch him. I just needed to make sure I was never in that situation.”
Manchester United must have taken note, because they used a very similar tactic to nullify Bale at Old Trafford last Saturday, particularly once Wes Brown and Paul Scholes came on with just over 25 minutes to go. Brown was clearly given instructions to push Bale inside on to his right foot, and into a congested midfield patrolled by Scholes and Darren Fletcher. (Strangely, Wes Brown has yet to trend on Twitter.)
It’s a tactic Bale can expect to face more often as opponents attempt to stifle his creative threat – particularly as Inter’s defensive tactics left Maicon exposed to his pace. The DVD of last night’s game should serve as a clear warning to Tottenham’s future Champions League opponents as to the consequences of failing to deal with Bale.
Perhaps Premier League defences are heeding that warning. While he has scored freely in Europe, there have been no domestic goals since he scored twice – including an astonishing volley – at Stoke in August.
Back on Twitter, there’s another fascinating statistic to highlight the fact that domestic defences are coming to terms with Bale, courtesy of the excellent Opta Joe:
“102 players have more assists than Gareth Bale (none) in the Premier League this season.”